Child of Light (Ubisoft, 2014)

child of light

Child of Light is chasing an aesthetic. A cauldron of beautiful art, tranquil music, and a fairy tale story influenced by Disney and Studio Ghibli classics.

The art is indeed gorgeous and mixed with the subdued orchestral tinkling, the atmosphere of the game emerges with an austere beauty. It is the whimsy that is lacking; the dialogue is all text (no speech), and generally rhymes. There’s sad clowns, mercantile mice, 13 year olds with beards. A city where all inhabitants were turned to crows, a city built upon a giant’s scalp. The stuff of Roald Dahl and Norton Juster, but Phantom Tollbooth this is not. It’s hard to make such wonder so bland, especially when backed by such pretty artwork, but the sad truth is that the writing is just not that good. For a tale relying so heavily on rhyme, the couplets do not flow well at all and require some mental word twisting to work out the rhyme. The characters aren’t particularly charming or worthy of emotional investment.

The game starts poorly. You control a single character, walking around a 2d world that does seem particularly friendly to walking. I almost put the game down. But 30-45 minutes in, the little-girl protagonist, Aurora, gains the ability to fly and the gameplay vastly improves. You increase the size of your party and the enemies increase the size of theirs and it starts to feel like a real game.

The combat in Child of Light is reminiscent of the old Super Nintendo Final Fantasy games. Touching an enemy out in the world swaps to a separate screen where your party engages the enemy in turn-based combat. All characters, friend and foe, show up on a bar called the timeline and their portraits move from left to right, and when they reach 80% of the way to the far right, the player can choose an attack. If the character is attacked in the remaining 20%, they lose their move and are shunted backwards down the timeline. The player can only control 2 characters at a time but can seamlessly swap in dormant party members mid-combat.

It’s pretty fun. On the harder of the two difficulties, fights generally require a strategic approach. The game eventually starts to suffer from repetition as every boss fight is a main beastie with two henchmen and the strategy of carefully killing one, then two, and stabilizing to take down the major enemy works literally every time. The game is short so the repetition does not get too tiresome, but I can’t shake the feeling that a more creative approach could have led to far more varied battles.

All said, the game was pretty if a bit sterile. I miss turn based RPGs, so even if it was far from perfect, I’m thankful this game exists and I stuck it out beyond the flightless first act. And it really was very pretty.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

station11In the near future, an epidemic breaks out in eastern Europe — a deadly, highly contagious flu that rapidly kills off most of the population of earth. Survivors scrounge by, holed up in airports and Walmarts. It’s not a terribly innovative premise as far as fiction goes. Yet it feels both comfortable and fresh.

This is in large part because the collapse and subsequent dystopia are not really the focus, or at least not the only focus. Shortly before the flu destroyed North America, an aging actor named Arthur Leander had a heart attack and died on stage while playing the titular role in King Lear. The book weaves back and forth, prior to the virus, after the virus, during the virus, following Arthur or, more often, people with some connection to him. His ex-wives, best friend, minor acquaintances like co-actors and paparazzi. A series of narrative-supported coincidences led several of them to survive the collapse and cluster around Michigan.

The time-shifts and the way the point of view shifts reveal different facets of the story is the meat of the book and feels almost David Mitchell-lite. The character study isn’t exactly deep. Many of the characters aren’t fully realized entities but they are treated kindly by the author and all serve to further the ‘feel’ of the novel. It’s a pleasant feeling, despite the loss of most of mankind. The human legacy that  survives the apocalypse is Shakespeare — some of the main characters belong to a traveling symphony show that regularly perform his plays. Quoting Star Trek: Survival is insufficient is the main theme of the survivors. The story is more about hope than it is about the depravity humans sink to when resources are scarce. There’s wonder and loss for the magical technology of the past as well as awe for the star-speckled sky in a world with no light pollution.

I really enjoyed this book as I was reading it. And I read it very quickly. I still feel like it’s a good book, but I’m a little less plussed having finished it. The pacing/momentum of the story is one of its greatest strengths. So when the end sort of peters out, without any real oomph or narrative glow, it’s a little disappointing. And due to the shallow characters, I feel like I’m already forgetting the book!

Actually, I think this would make a fantastic TV show. About 60% of the way through the book, I was thinking of Station Eleven as a solid first episode: introduce the characters, their world, their plight. But I knew it wasn’t a series and became doubtful it could close satisfactorily (and this was borne out).

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (2014, Monolith)

shadowofmordor
This game impressed upon me a profound and immutable truth: the average video game player has much in common with with the orcs of Mordor.

This is a video game based on a movie based on a book. Indeed, it’s a fanfictiony tale that takes place in an indifferent time period that is only recognizable to Lord of the Rings nerds because Gollum is hanging out in Mordor. But the overarching narrative — Talion, a ranger of Gondor slain by Sauron’s agents and returning to half-life mysteriously bonded to the wraith of a long dead elf — is not the true narrative at all. Indeed, the real story of Shadow of Mordor lies in the ‘nemesis system’ that Monolith has created, a complex system of orc politics and identity generation.

In other words, an orc might strike you down, gain a name like “Zag the Mighty”, laugh at your misfortune and begin his meteoric rise through orc society, ambushing his contemporaries and engaging in feats of strength, to be promoted from captain to warchief. Later, after interrogating his cronies for intel, you might learn Zag is immune to stealth attacks, really afraid of fire, and has a weakness to archery. You’ll duly shoot the scoundrel in the head with your wraith’s bow and leave his corpse to rot. Hours in the future, when you’re minding your own business (beheading unrelated orcs), you’re jumped by an orc with a bandaged, mummified head, now “Zag Baghead”, truly pissed off you ruined his face and ready to rumble. He clashes swords with you, references your last fight, and laments how all the other orcs make fun of his face now.

These interactions, smartly tied together in a ball of procedurally generated thread, are the real narrative, a truly inventive mix of gameplay and emergent storytelling.

This game is violent. It’s spent almost entirely killing orcs en masse, lopping off their heads, pincushioning them with arrows, stabbing out their eyes or shanking them repeatedly in the kidney. Or otherwise planning your next sojourn to do the same. Orcs, after all, are just really bad humans. They generally have cockney accents which brings a sort of ugly class angle to the whole thing. They get birthed from mud as adults and know only cruelty and competition. I was starting to feel maybe a little uneasy about taking joy in this whole slaughter thing when it came to me. Maybe it was when an orc who had recently killed me yelled “Didn’t I already kill you?” or “Stop haunting me!”. Or maybe when I was sneaking around listening orcs argue who would win in a fight — an elf or a wizard? Maybe when I burst into laughter after Dush the Cannibal, on death’s door, shouted “Don’t let me go to waste! Please eat me!” shortly before I killed him.

These aren’t just orcs. They’re models of video gamers. I, too, when given a weapon and free reign in a video game, am an orc. Butchery and laughter and grog! If the only the game had the balls to straight up make you play as an orc and not a beefy Aragorn analog.

 

The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think is Right is Wrong by Jennifer Michael Hecht

happinessmyth‘The Happiness Myth’ is an unlikely title to find in my hands. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a self-help book, but like Hecht’s previous (excellent) book Doubt, it’s a mix of philosophy and history and the author’s opinion. Maybe a little self-helping.

(not that there is anything wrong with self-help books, but generally gripping, inventive fiction or engrossing non-fic is of the most help to me, not instructive wisdom & motivation.)

The general premise of The Happiness Myth is this: we have three conflicting kinds of happiness.

  • Good day happiness: Reading a good book, eating a piece of cake, watching a movie. Instant good feelings.
  • Euphoria: Drugs, mindbending sex, spiritual visions. Rare and sometimes dangerous extreme feelings.
  • Good life happiness: Advancing in your career, raising a family, building your life. Generally not individually happy events, but the overall accomplishment feels good.

These three categories often compete with each other. For instance, eating a whole pizza feels good in the moment but won’t feel so good later if you have certain life-wide fitness goals. Likewise, pursuing a career that forces you to always be on does not offer many times to take hallucinogenic drugs. Our culture has a bias towards good-life happiness at this current era of history and disparages euphoria in particular.

The second part of Hecht’s argument is that the methods that people have used to achieve happiness have been vastly different across civilizations and time periods. More importantly, we have a tendency to think our era’s methods are correct, when in actuality, they’re just as nonsensical as anyone else’s. We have maxims built into our language such as “Money cannot buy happiness” which is objectively false. We tell pregnant women to exercise. Victorians told pregnant women to avoid exercise and partake in opium vials instead. We condemn the latter, but it’s not any more risky or dangerous than the former. In fact, they’re both very slightly dangerous and pregnant are better off not doing either!

Like Hecht’s previous book Doubt, this book is strongest when it’s revealing the obscure historic details and quotes. It’s fascinating and it did provoke me to analyze my actions w/r/t the people of the past, which is like the definition of a book like this succeeding at its aim. There’s a few spots where Hecht generalizes people at large and gives direction for our culture that doesn’t entirely mesh with me. For instance, I really like going to the gym. And while I understand public mourning and would like to attend the massive, chaotic week long festivals of the ancient medieval and hellenic worlds, it would be as a bystander, not a participant. I don’t think there’s much emotional release for me in crowds.

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

the wakegraetings raeder, this bocc was a thryll, i saes to thu, a triewe thryll.

This is the story of our hero, buccmaster of holland, a man displaced in the year 1066 by the arrival of kyng geeyome and his french cronies, and buccmaster’s travels across an England all aflame.

It is fantastic. It succeeds on three different, but entwined levels:

1. The language

Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes — all are implicit in our words, and what we do with them. To put 21st century sentences into the mouths of eleventh century characters would be the equivalent of giving them iPads and cappuccinos: just wrong.

Kingsnorth has created a hodgepodge language (a ‘shadow tongue’) of old english, modern english, and hybrid-y made-up words. It’s not as difficult as it sounds; most words can be simply sounded out (folc = folk, blaec = black, wifeman = woman) and are clear by context. Others took me a while to puzzle out (sawol = soul, deoful = devil) and there’s a few words like esol and ingenga that are just old or made up words but near-immediately clear from context as to what they mean.

I know some readers despise having to learn a dialect, espousing the notion that good writing conducts these qualities without linguistic hijinx. And that an activity used for entertainment should not require work. I couldn’t disagree with this notion more. As Kingswolf articulates in the quote above — you cannot truly understand a people until you delve closely into the way they think, which exists within the sphere of their language. It’s also why no matter how great a translation from one language to a next is, it will still always be imperfect.

2. Our hero

i is buccmaster of holland i is a socman a man of the wapentac i has three oxgangs and this is my werod. this is my werod and this is my sweord and those wolde leaf with this fuccan preost go now go north go to sec thy earols and beorn lic the landwaster did in northern fyr

buccmaster of holland, a socman of three oxgangs, is a goddamn asshole. He’s a petty, violent, coward obsessed with his own greatness. He thinks he’s the only real englishman left in England. Literally the only positive quality he sees in other people is obeisance to him. He has the voices of ‘eald anglisc gods’ in his head, which are actually originally the norse gods, telling him he’s weak and urging him to fight  (making this the 2nd historical fiction book I’ve read featuring a mad englishman with a voice in his head in as many months).

And you spend the entire novel intimate with this scoundrel, amidst the muddled and contradictory fear and hate that make up his thought processes. It’s litany of 11th century hate, for everything — foreigners, his countrymen, his family, society, religion, the young, the old. Yet despite that you could easily see the same type of man reflected in a present day ultra-conservative pining for days bygone, thinking themselves the only real American (insert your country), lamenting giving women any rights or utterly opposed to any change whatsoever.

And he’s one of the best written protagonists I’ve followed in years. I can hear the fucker muttering his greatness in my sleep. Even after he does something bafflingly cruel and brutal, I can’t help but chuckle when he again uses as his justification the fact that he’s a a triewe anglisc man, buccmaster of holland, a socman of three oxgangs. He’s just so bitter, so full of rage. And also pathetic and devoid of self awareness. His wife and sons are murdered and he whines about the inconvenience to him.

3. The history

Laughably, the blurb for this book states:

Everyone knows the date of the Battle of Hastings. Far fewer people know what happened next…

I guess ‘everyone’ in this context means some englishpeople and historians. Real quick primer: The french rapidly conquered England, and burned, raped, and siphoned the wealth of the good people across England. But in this era of history, England was massively decentralized and underpopulated. The numbers were very small. So a few men escaping the sack of their village (a ‘ham’ of a handful of houses) could hide in the fen or forest, a place the foreign-born french could not pursue them and pick off the invaders in guerilla combat.

It was less a war than pure colonization. The french despised the english and had no problem quashing their customs and ways.The modern english we know today are a combo of french and english from the time. The old gods were already on their way out in favor of ‘the hwit crist’, but the french greatly accelerated the Christianizing of England. Hereditary monarchy and land ownership transmitting through first born sons are old french constructs, not english. Following the events of The Wake, there was not another king who spoke english as a first language for a good 250 years! Contrary to the book blurb’s ‘everyone…’, I knew nothing about this era of history and found it fascinating. I would have guessed old english gods were celtic, not norse.

we is men of the hidden places of our own places and our worc is to stand for the lands we cnawan and cum from to cepe our folc free. and when there is enough of us angland will not be ham for no ingenga and none will stand to be here for none can lif if the treows the ground the hylls them selfs is waepened agan all comers


(buccmaster was wrong)

Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014, Bioware)

dai

This is a short review for a very long game.

I spent approximately one hundred hours playing this game — exploring fen and mountain, slaying (endangered) dragons, talking to the members of my inner circle, reading backstory text logs, tweaking my party’s gear and abilities, trying to stop demons from pouring into the physical world — an amount of time I rarely come anywhere near in single player games.

I look back at all those hours now and I can barely explain what had me so enthralled. DAI subscribes to the Ubisoft/Assassin Creed gameplay trend of making everything a collectible or completionist checklist. A fair portion of my time spent was collecting magical shards, claiming landmarks for the inquisition, collecting random items for towns/countryfolk for minimal reward. In a word: busywork.

The plot does not bear up under scrutiny. The pacing is really awkward. You’re consistently foiling the one-dimensional villain and the ‘final’ battle is just putting him out of his misery, not stopping any pressing threat. The dialogue is undeniably goofy, often. The game tries to make single deaths a big deal — there’s plot beats based on revealing my buddies have murder in their past. Yet, this happened after I got an achievement for “kill 2500 enemies”, probably half of which were human bandits and soldiers. If you took all these story elements together and put them into a novel, I wouldn’t read it unless you paid me.

The combat and mechanics are fun but feature a major lack of balance. The designers tried to eliminate an antiquated mode of RPG combat — dedicated healers to reverse damage done by the player’s enemies. But in doing so, they just put more emphasis on a different antiquated RPG mechanic: the ‘tank’, or warrior who must soak up all the damage and keep enemies off the rest of the more fragile party members. Even on the hardest difficulty, fighting the hardest enemy (dragons), my whole group would die except my unkillable warrior who would slowly whittle down the dragon to death.

The game was also supremely buggy and forced me to reload several times; I missed one plot point because the major character involved disappeared and the game would show a blank wall and silence when she was supposed to be speaking.

And yet, no matter how nitpicky or damning I can write about this game, I enjoyed my time immensely. I was entranced. I thought about it at work when I wasn’t playing it.

I don’t know. Video games are weird.

Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko

almanacThere was not, and there never had been, a legal government by Europeans anywhere in the Americas. Not by any definition, not even by the Europeans’ own definitions and laws. Because no legal government could be established on stolen land. Because stolen land never had clear title.

Leslie Marmon Silko is pissed. Five hundred years of outrage. The colonization of the Americas goes beyond mere colonialism into the whites’ insatiable thirst for more and more resources, clawing the earth apart in search of more riches to deplete. The spirits are pissed too. At the destructive whites and at the native people who do not honor them*. Ten thousands years of Native American ancestors ready to unleash their sorrow and anguish in terms of droughts, tsunamis, hurricanes, you name it.

Which brings me to the plot. There’s a war coming. The details are hazy, and its many tellings are varied and contradictory, but the thrust of all prophecies is clear: at some undetermined point in the future, all the white people in the Americas will be swept away and its native peoples will reclaim the land.

Note: The book is like 800 pages and the war never happens.

This is a story of vignettes, of interlocking stories and characters. A coked out young mother searching for her child, twin Indian sisters (one a talk show personality who can find missing people, but only if they are dead; the other subtly declaring war on the US government in part by stockpiling an enormous amount of guns), an old, contemplative border smuggler gone soft, a mobster with a cadre of assassins and his real estate tycoon wife building water-strewn Venice in Arizona, a Native man refusing his past and obsessed with bulletproof vests, another man kicked out of his tribal lands after inadvertently allowing a Hollywood crew to film his peoples’ sacred stone snake…

The story of a character will unfold, we’ll get in their head and see their story, and then after a few sub-chapters, the story will swap to a different character the first one knew, then afterwards, another character that that character knew, and so on, deeper and deeper until the chain starts again. All lives are entwined, mostly in Tucson, Arizona and south of the border, but the story crisscrosses all over the US. They are marginalized peoples. Mexican and Native Americans. Black power vets looking to South African independence as guidance. The white people have some outsider qualities — brain damaged as a youth or a Vietnam war vet or a woman…

The characters are largely reprehensible, but some are much worse than others and the book slides into dangerous group-identity territory with its cadre of women-hating, gay sadists. (The only vaguely emphatic gay character kills himself.) There’s detailed descriptions of snuff films, of bestiality, of child abuse. With the length of the novel, this can get a little tiring; you’ll probably feel a little worn out. The extreme weight of all these terrible people gets heavy, maybe backbreaking for some.

I eat these kind of books up, when the characters are written well and engaging; everything from Game of Thrones to Catch 22. I love a fat, complex, multifaceted story. At times, Almanac reminds me of narratives like Pulp Fiction or Infinite Jest, but being written in 1991, it predates both. The style reminds me of Joan Didion. Not just because one of the main characters is a Californian white woman, with abortion in her past and lost child drama in her present, spinning out of control. Sentences are typically short and complete. There is repetition. Angles will change mid paragraph. It’s smooth and palatable and difficult content aside, it’s easy to get lost in.

 

*”The spirits allow you no rest. The spirits say die fighting the invaders or die drunk.”

Used Bookstores of Hawaii

hawaiibooks2
Pictured left: Makalawena Beach in Kona, Big Island, Hawaii. Requires a drive in a (rental) car down a roughshod road cut through a lava field and subsequent 20 minute hike through lava field. Just ‘secret’ and adventurous enough to stay relatively uncrowded and foster a comradely wink among attendees. Pictured right: the pile of books we purchased on Big Island
)

I have become a connoisseur of city used-bookstores. Or, if ‘connoisseur’ denotes a level expertise I don’t actually possess — call me a wide-eyed explorer, an amateur archaeologist, an enthusiast. Big city standbys like Powell’s in Portland, OR, a veritable castle of books. Or small city eccentricities, like the naval/seafaring collection of a bookstore on the island of Alameda, CA. I wasn’t always this way. I grew up in the suburbs and naturally a bookstore was the massive Barnes and Noble or Borders (R.I.P.) in the nearest giant mall. 3 floors of glossy bestsellers, new releases, and tables piled with gift suggestions that nowadays I only see every holiday season when I am back home on the east coast and need to buy several family members Christmas presents.

Also, when I was a child, vacations were synonymous with book purchases. I’d whine incessantly until my parents brought me to a bookstore (they’d give in only because it was a special occasion, like a birthday or holiday). Then I’d spend most of the time away, usually camping in New Hampshire or Maine, reading hundreds or thousands of pages. It’s weird to think now that what prevented me from reading then was not time to read but availability of new books.

These two factors tie adult vacations closely with buying books. I was disappointed the first time I went bookstore hunting in Hawaii. Kauai, despite all its other very high qualities, has one lame bookstore and I only bought a book because I felt I had to. It was Life of Pi and I didn’t even like it. So I was wary on my return trip, this time to Big Island (a birthday present from my amazing wife).

Big Island has used bookstores everywhere. Big ones, small ones, good ones, bad ones, weird ones comprised entirely of beat up mass market editions. It’s a high-use swap culture, judging by how well-used the books are and the fact that there’s several copies of books that just came out that aren’t even in softcover yet; This makes an easy way to get cheap hardcovers of books I wouldn’t have read for years, or possibly forgotten about (in this case, Emily St. John Mandel’s much heralded Station Eleven). We bought most of our books from the sister stores Kona Bay Books and Hilo Bay Books, giant warehouses that look like aircraft hangers, converted to shelf upon shelf of books. The smell upon entry is unmistakable. They’re the kind of store that still have entire sections dedicated to mystery or suspense and have sci-fi sections that are bigger than most normal stores’ fiction sections.

A short list of the types of books only to be unearthed in musty, used book stores:

  • The book you had been planning to buy forever but only just now picked up due to its amazing cover (seen here as the 1981 version of The War of the End of the World. Something between a telenovela and Jesus Christ Superstar)
  • The book that is so ancient and tattered that it’s list price is less than its present-day used book price (My $2 purchase of the originally 35cent The Turn of the Screw)
  • The book you had never heard of by one of your favorite authors (The Cave by Jose Saramago)
  • The book that honestly shouldn’t have been this hard to find (A Void by Georges Perec — seriously been looking for this for months, despite it being his most well known book)

Incidentally I only ever seem to come home with these enormous book caches when I am already in the middle of reading a massive novel (The Almanac of the Dead in this case — it’s really good, but also 800 pages). Thus putting off the choice of choosing which of these gems I can even start.

The great fire of London [a novel of interpolations and bifurcations] by Jacques Roubaud

great fire of londonIn his youth, Jacques Roubaud had a dream that changed his life. The dream, which was honestly little more than him getting off a train in London and observing the passerby, revealed the following:

  • He must write a novel, titled The Great Fire of London.
  • He must compose an extensive poetry project, which he called the Project.
  • The novel and the poetry must be intertwined completely.
  • The poetry Project must also be a math project (Roubad’s second career was mathematician)
  • The essence of the dream must be realized through the above (by the way: the dream included London but no fire nor poetry; it was a pretty unremarkable dream to impart such a grand vision)

Jacques never wrote the book.

He waffled over its complexity for thirty years, performed endless research on ancient troubadours and the evolution of language. Made lists, excuses.Then his wife suddenly died; He declared the completion of the Project & The Great Fire of London impossible. Following three years of total bereavement — non-being as he terms it —  he started writing again.  He adopted an inflexible regimen of waking up around 3am (on a very precise schedule based on seasonal light) and writing in the same small notebook in the same black ink whilst refusing to ever go back and edit.The result was the book I actually read, not The Great Fire of London but instead: The great fire of London. (A capitalization distinction the publisher refused to acknowledge on the cover of the book)

So here we are, meet the great fire of London, the first book since The Dictionary of the Khazars that forced me to use three bookmarks.

That is why every path that opens up but is not immediately followed, nor forever abandoned, will be signaled in the text, unobtrusively, with directions that allow it be found again somewhere in the book, a book which like all others however can be read sequentially, for themselves. The reader, armed with eyes and patience, if he’s the sort who isn’t too put off by the more or less simultaneous exploration of divergent branches (a simple extension moreover of silent skipping with your eyes from the end of one line to the beginning of the next, from one page to another (an ascending movement this time), not to mention the concurrent reading of several books, or of notes, of glosses…), will be able, theoretically, to make a more varied, less “pedestrian” measure of the chaotic landscape of this novel.

What Roubaud is getting at here is this: There’s parts of the main ‘story’ that he absolutely wants to tell you about, but are a digression or distraction. He numbers these sections and that number corresponds to a section in the back of the book where he elaborates on the point (sort of like Infinite Jest’s endnotes). He might briefly mention his morning routine involving a bakery stop, but leave his obsessive list of requirements for the perfect croissant for the corresponding segment at the end of the book. He labels these diversions the interpolations of the title.

The second innovation is the bifurcation. What’s a bifurcation? At points where Roubaud absolutely could not decide which direction to take the novel, he went both ways. If a section of the main story has a number prefaced by a ‘b’, there is a bifurcation at the end of the book where he writes the chapter in the alternate flow he wanted to take.

I really like the idea of this book. Way more than actually reading it. The structure is fantastic; the actual content is a hodgepodge of all kinds of nonsense. Autobiographical episodes of his life, his family, his childhood. Long descriptions of rooms, photos. His love of England, love of reading, walking, swimming. Ruminations on poetry, math. Some of it is quite good — it’s fascinating reading Roubaud describe the making of jelly from a fruit(?) I’ve never even heard of, wisdom from old Provencal France. But it’s disordered and does not hold together. Some of the sections get abstract or theoretical and I appreciated them more than I actually enjoyed reading them. Worse, there is an interminable chapter where Roubaud pontificates on the mechanics of the how the novel, project, and dream all held together, how he would have written The Great Fire of London and the Project if he had actually written them. Larges swathes of it are borderline incomprehensible:

The novel would contain mysteries, while also being told with mystery. These are not the same thing. In the appearances of mystery, there would be the mystery of its form. The mystery of its form would bear a substantial relationship to the Project’s riddle, most particularly to that aspect of the riddle identified with reflexivity; the Project, in itself, a riddling presence.The mystery of the project-riddle’s manifestation as a novel would assume a public form. It would be medieval monstration. The fiction would move through the necessary “variations” of narration and description. The mystery of the ‘with mystery” implied numerals and “numberings”.

Imagine fifty dense pages of that!

Jacques also has this hilarious affectation w/r/t the english language. He’s admits he’s an anglophobe and is in love with England; but any reference to english or England must come with a follow-up clarification that he means english-english and not american-english, usually with an anecdote to show how inferior or soulless the american version is. I got so used to this that, late in the book, when he’s describing how much he loves english parks, I already knew he was going to write something negative about how little he liked Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. And lo’ and behold, the impugnment shortly followed. Blech, give me the dirt and chaos of GGP over highly manicured, sanitized english lawns that you cannot even step foot on any day.

Anyway, I really liked this quote so I’ll end here (topic is reading):

My passion is as old as myself, that is, as the self that counts and walks and remembers. All these things exist on a more or less contemporary plane (viewed from the distance of time where I am today). At every moment of the past I see books: books open and overturned in the grass, books piled near a bed; books on a table, shelves, in school bags, in plastic bags, in suitcases; books in buses, trains, subways, planes. Every picture of my surrounding world contains at least one book. The world teems with a plurality of books, books being read.

Dragon Age II (2011, Bioware)

da2

I loved the first Dragon Age. I avoided the second. When it was released, all I heard about it was that it was a rushed, overwrought, poorly developed mess.

Now I’ve played it.

And it is an incredibly rushed, somewhat overwrought, occasionally poorly developed mess. But, it’s a mess with heart. A mess with some great ideas. It’s a jumbled ride that simultaneously sheds RPG standard cliches and standbys and innovates, while being rushed out so quickly that half the ‘dungeons’ are the same repeats of the same exact drab terrain. It’s almost comic when you enter the same exact map of a warehouse or cave as you just did fifteen minutes earlier somewhere else in the world except some passages that were previously sealed are now open for you and some rooms that were accessible before are now blocked. Sometimes there is no pretense — you are just asked to go to the same exact portion of the world you just visited.

But, but, but. It does many interesting things. To wit, the premise —

Due to the events of the first Dragon Age (a monstrous darkspawn invasion (see: Lord of the Ring orcs) sweeping across fantasyland), the Hawke family flees their endangered home to their ancestral city of Kirkwall. Kirkwall lies in a part of the world called the Free Marches, a collection of city states largely untouched by the monster party rockin’ across the land. The entirety of DA 2 takes place inside Kirkwall and its environs. As the protagonist (simply called ‘Hawke’), you and your family arrive to the city penniless with the aim of improving your clan’s lot in life.

With the vast majority of RPGs, or honestly any kind of video game, focusing on saving the whole damn world, being the chosen one, whatever, the small scale was incredibly welcome and kind of novel. Your first major quest series is funding an expedition to a subterranean treasure trove (naturally full of monsters) with a host of greedy dwarves. The in-game timeline shifts between major story arcs by 3-5 years and while the scale of conflict increases, it never goes beyond Kirkwall. You’re not trying to save the world — you’re trying to stay alive, create wealth, and later stop your home city from eating itself.

But, like basically everything else in this fantastical imbroglio: Any good idea is coupled with some mystifying and sloppy implementation or major detraction. Kirkwall is uninspired beyond belief. The neighborhoods are literally named ‘Hightown’, ‘Lowtown’, ‘Darktown’, and ‘The Docks’. They’re almost entirely without distinguishing landmarks nor do they make cohesive sense as a place of residence and trade. Despite the fact that several years pass between chapters, nothing in the city changes. All of the major characters and random townspeople stay stationary, the merchants spout the same nonsense. The most egregious example — you kick a large foreign force out of the city in act II that had occupied half of ‘The Docks’. 3+ years later in act III, the area these guys were in is blocked off and empty and the docks are even more pointless.

Further examples of this game’s split personality:

The combat is honestly fun. It’s an improvement over the stuttery pace of the original, which was too married to older RPG combat systems. DA2 is fast, the abilities are interesting, and while it’s mildly silly that rogues are teleporting ninjas, the whole of it ties together to make difficult battles visceral and satisfying, while still strategic if you choose to micromanage your party’s tactics. The specializations you can customize for Hawke and companions change the way they play in noticeable ways and are not just a variation of +1 damage or -1 armor when you press X.

Again, the dark mirror — the combat is indeed fun but there is like 3 different types of enemies to actually engage in fisticuffs with. Melee guy (whether it be a bandit or a demon, they act the same), archer, wizard, and a handful of special demons with slight ability changes. OK, so like 5. I’ve killed enough bandits to depopulate a small country. They also just arrive in waves at random intervals, dropping in a poof of smoke (just kidding, no smoke, just pop-in). It was downright innovative when I played a downloadable chapter where enemy archers actually utilized high ground to shoot at my crew.

The good: the characters you can recruit to join your party are fairly well characterized, and rather than just choosing dialogue options that the character most wants to hear to gain their approval, DA2 rewards either befriending them or making them a ‘rival’ by constantly shitting on their dumb ideas. Like I did with Fenris, an elf once enslaved in a nation run by mages. Every time he went off on how mages should be imprisoned, killed whatever, I told him how wrong he was. Or if he was in my party while I helped some mages,  he had some smartass comment or angry outburst ready. By the end of the game, he was maxed out on the ‘rival’ end of the buddy spectrum; he stuck around because he respected Hawke but he was angry all the time and it fed into his actions and the way some plot events play out. I want to call this feature out specifically because I have read that in DA3, this gets thrown out the window, and party member interactions regress to ‘tell them what they want to hear’.

The bad: Hmm, this part is actually kind of solid. My only complaint is that it is sort of fluff, and has little impact even when the lynchpin of the catastrophic third act involves one of your party members making a monumentally stupid decision that you cannot affect at all.

OK, maybe I’m a sap or have low standards*. Maybe I’m enabling large corporations to vomit out half-finished work while I willingly line up to hand out money. But I enjoyed it a great deal.


*It’s not true!